Laos: The Dirtiest of Dirt Roads (19/03/16-30/03/16)

The was a long no-man’s-land between Vietnam and Laos. It took me a while to cross as there was a mountain pass in the middle. When I dropped over the top I reached the first Laos checkpoint. I’d heard the guards from a mile away. They had crates of beer stacked up and were yelling at the top of their lungs as their colleagues miss-fired in the game of boules they were playing.

Route across Laos
Route across Laos

‘Welcome to Laos’ they slurred and invited me over for a drink. Beer Laos – I’ve missed you. I’ve been in Laos once before years ago, but only on a short visit and I won’t be visiting any of the same places this time round. I remember my leaving impression being of a beautiful country full of lovely people. Those were my first impressions this time round.

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Laos – country no. 29!

‘Don’t you want to see my passport?’ I asked. ‘No, no – over there’ they pointed down the hill. I was worried they were so drunk they’d forget to stamp me in, but a kilometre down the mountain there was indeed another checkpoint. The party was continuing. The guards gave me a warm greeting and invited me to join them for lunch. It was a cold and spicy salad, unlike anything I’d eaten on this trip. Way too spicy for me. This was about to be the warmest welcome I’d ever had into a country…

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This is how I learn a new language on the road

The honeymoon didn’t last long. I coughed up $35 for my visa-on-arrival but was then asked for 20,000KIP for the stamp service. I began to protest but the bloke pointed up at a sign above his head clearly stating the extra fee, and that it was twice as much on the weekend (I arrived on Saturday). I was then passed over to the next counter were I had to pay 10,000KIP for a police-something. I rolled my eyes as the guard pointed to the sign above his window. He smiled and said ‘must pay three times – sorry!’. At the final counter I had to pay 30,000KIP for some other bullshit. Unbelievable. 60,000KIP in extra fees – that’s just over £5! Aside from Turkmenistan I’ve never had to pay extra bribes at a border. On both occasions I didn’t have much choice. They’ve got the stamp and a I need to get into their country.

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New country, same mountains

I’d changed the last of my Dong money at the Vietnamese border, thinking that would last me a couple of days but after my fleecing at the border I had a about a quid’s worth of Laos KIP left. I asked the guard if he’d change some USD for me. He offered me an awful rate and then refused to budge on it ‘sorry – we’re not the bank’.

Come on man! You’ve just raped my wallet, don’t take the piss. In the end I was too stubborn to give them a penny more so cycled into Laos with a quid to my name.

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In Vietnam most of the homes I passed were wooden stilt homes. In Laos they were mostly simple bamboo huts (and pretty wonky at times, too).
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First night in Laos

At the first village I stopped to buy some water. The guy in the shop asked me for 10,000KIP for a 1.5L bottle – that’s 85p! Do I look like a mug? Or am I just in another country where everyone is going to try and rip me off left right and centre? I walked across the road to the shop opposite where the woman charged me half the price. Laos is more expensive than it’s neighbours – especially for water. The filter is back out again.

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Muang Khua
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That’s the bridge from where the above photo was taken
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Town centre

I arrived in the small village Muang Khua on my second day. I planned on staying a couple of nights but ended up sleeping there 4 nights. My room was dirt cheap (£2.50) and the location gorgeous. Life seemed to move at a slower pace in Laos and I wanted to try and match it.

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One of the prettiest spots I’ve updated the blog from! Just another day in the ‘office’…
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Every evening I played football with the local kids by the river until it was too dark to see. There were too many Man U shirts around for my liking and it became a running joke to foul anyone wearing red. Not the strictest of kick-abouts!

There wasn’t much to do there but to my surprise there were a few tourists arriving & leaving each day on river boats. Muang Khua had enough foreigners to warrant a handful of guest houses and English menus in cafes, but it didn’t feel dependant on tourism at all. There’s not many places that size that have a balance like that.

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Backpackers waiting for the (somewhat irregular) boat to leave

I was invited to a birthday celebration where I met one of the local English teachers. He asked me to pop down to the high school and help out in his English class the next day. At first the head teacher didn’t want me in as I wasn’t dressed formally but apparently the cycling story was enough to sway him.

The bloke who’d invited me had asked me to prepare some advice for the students on learning English. After my first three examples he then said, ‘OK, next advice’. Er… how many do you want? I made up something stupid on the stop. ‘OK, next advice’. I said another useless bit of advice like ‘listen to your teacher’ (clearly running thin on ideas). ‘OK, next advice’. This went on for half an hour. I’m not sure I’ve ever talked so much crap in my life.

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The local high school I was invited to
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Small hut amongst the dried up rice fields

After a few days rest I continued west. In Oudomxai I was invited to another English class by some local kids. Once again I was forced into an uncomfortable improvisation session…

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More local kids in too many Man U shirts (maybe next year they’ll be in Leicester ones) and bright orange monk robes.

The teacher told the class they’d be doing ‘infinitives’. Then he turned to me: ‘you can give the examples and I’ll break them down’. Shit, what on earth is an infinitive? I’ve never heard of that in my life! I don’t want to look like a plonker in front of all these kids aged about 12-15. I quickly whispered to the teacher ‘why don’t you do the first example? I don’t know what level everyone’s at and I don’t want to make it too difficult’. ‘Good idea’ he replied, ‘they’re only beginners’.

Phew! One example up and I could wing the rest. Well played.

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Pausing to check out a temple between Oudomxai and Luang Namtha

Oudomxai wasn’t a particularly interesting town but I had a couple of errands to run there. First I popped into the tourist office to try and work out if the road I’d been eyeing up leading west existed. It was marked on one of my paper maps, but wasn’t marked on any others. For sure there was some kind of trail, but I wasn’t sure if it would be passable. The staff in tourist office couldn’t agree if the road existed or not, so I accepted defeat and prepared to follow the main road north.

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Young monks going for a stroll in Oudoumxai market

I’d lost yet another multi-tool and there were no bike shops in town. I wandered into a Chinese supermarket and found a cheap ring of hex keys that would keep me going. I had a strange experience in the supermarket. It was exactly the same as the ones in China and everything was weirdly familiar. There’s a huge Chinese community in Oudomxai – you spot Chinese faces on the streets and overhear Mandarin chit chat, the shops had Chinese characters above them and many of the restaurants are Yunnan style ‘point what you want from the fridge’ places.

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Hill-top temple in Oudomxai

Once again I was reminded how unfamiliar Laos was after months in China and Vietnam just felt like a long weekend holiday. I’d spent dozens of shopping trips in China working out which snacks were the cheapest but most filling, which noodles tasted best, which spices worked with my cooking and which preserved chillies weren’t so spicy they’d blow my head off. Here everything was familiar. The products were a tad more expensive than in Laos, but I don’t think that’s because they were imported – everything here costs a little more on the whole.

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Grocery shopping. All the vendors were waving plastic bags on sticks (as you can see the lady doing at the left) to keep their food fly-free.
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Will I ever escape the mountains?

I stuck to the main road and continued north from Oudomxai. A couple hours out of town my rear gear cable snapped. It had been playing up recently (it’s always a bit dodgy as the dérailleur hanger has never been properly straight after it broke over a year ago) and I’d tightened it up a little before leaving. That was the last tension stretch it could handle and it snapped apart. Great. Another thing I don’t know how to fix. I’ve never had a gear cable break on me on the road. I pulled out my repair kit knowing I only had one cable but I couldn’t remember if it was long enough to use as a rear.

There were no bike shops in Oudomxai so I was pretty thrilled when I discovered I had the right spare. Thank God I picked up those spare hex keys the day before, too. It took me a while, but eventually I figured out how to make the repair (the cable has snapped inside the handlebar so it was a frustrating fix in the heat) and continued with all my gears working for the hills ahead.

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Mud buffalo
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Following the road towards the Chinese border

It took me two days to reach the next town – Luang Namtha. At one point I was less than 20km from the Chinese border.

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Roadside grub is the same here as it is across the border – the ubiquitous noodle soup or ‘pho’. The variations are a little different than in China: here you get fresh salad and lime to chuck in and a you spice things up DIY with chilli sauce, fish & oyster sauce, soy and other chilli spices.

It’s only looking back at the pictures that I realise the road was still very beautiful. At the time all I could think was how bored I was of mountains. Here the relentless hills just seemed like pointless exercise.

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Windy mountain roads
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Camping in a rubber plantation. You can see that the bowls for sap collecting hadn’t been used for a long time. There are loads of rubber plantations around here but many haven’t been tapped for years as the Chinese-set demand and value for rubber has fallen.

I found my first Warmshowers host in months when I arrived in Luang Namtha. I stayed with Rene, a German guy working in micro-finance with the local communities. Luang Namtha is one of the larger towns in northern Laos, but like everywhere in this country it just felt like a big village.

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Rene’s beautiful riverside house
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Apparently the landlord’s family were going to turn the home into a bar/club before they ran into licensing problems. As a result there were some rather strange Chinese erotic tiles embedded into the bathroom’s porcelain walls…

With a couple of Rene’s mates we borrowed mountain bikes and cycled up into the surrounding mountains. The bikes were crap and the road brutally steep – not a great combo!

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Rene overtaking local women on the long and strenuous hike up to the village

In China I could just about keep up with the many ethnic groups whose territories I passed through in Yunnan. In Vietnam I started to struggle a little to work out who was who and by Laos I’d given up trying to work out who was around me. There are so many different ethnic groups living next to each other it’s a nightmare trying to keep up.

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Who are these weird foreigners who’ve cycled all the way up here just to have a beer and ride down again?

We stopped our mountain bike expedition in a small Sila village (although there’s a chance I’ve got my ethnic groups mixed up there). The Sila people are a very small Tibeto-Burman group who have a population of less than 2,000 people. I don’t think anyone is quite sure how and when they ended up in the region, but like many ethnic groups they migrated south from China.

They’d just gotten electricity last year so we could pick up a cold beer from one of the women’s shop/house. We had a drink while the local kids eyed us up with curious faces before whizzing back down. It was surreal to be back in a town within a couple of hours having just visited such a remote little settlement in the mountains. Perhaps that’s why Laos is such a fun place to travel.

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Passing a small village on the road to Muang Nale

Instead of following the main road west alongside the Chinese trucks heading for Thailand I rode south along the Nale river. I wanted a little dirt road adventure in Laos before leaving – the asphalt was too easy.

It was a bumpy but beautiful ride through charming wooden villages. Everywhere I pass in Laos I’m greeted like a celebrity. All the kids come running out screaming ‘falang, falang!’ and waving me off. In a couple of places some little girls would even blow me kisses which was impossibly cute.

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Ridiculously steep dirt roads

I put my tent up by the river and went for a swim while some local women waded around fishing in the shallows. I was falling in love with Laos. I felt welcome, safe and surrounded by raw beauty. There’s not much more I can ask for.

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The perfect pitch

At the village Muang Nale I turned west again. This was the section I was nervous about. The road only existed on one of my maps and there weren’t many villages marked between here and the main road.

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Heading up into the mountains
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Another road I’ll have to push the bike up

The road was ridiculous. Many of the gradients were impossible to cycle and walking up is usually harder than pedalling. I’m still carrying all my extra winter gear (stupid, I know) and the load is about 70kg. I covered a pathetic amount of distance that day.

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Make them stop!

I eventually reached a village where I could fill up my water. It was a cute, remote place but I got a strange vibe there. I planned on camping in the village itself but the attention was too much. About 30 kids gathered around me watching my every move as I re-filled my bottles and washed myself and the parents lent out of the stilt homes to get a good look in at me. I felt like an alien.

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The village I planned on stopping in for the night
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The local kids legged it laughing when I got my camera out which became a pretty good tool to find myself a little room to breath in the crowd!

It would have been stressful camping with dozens of nosey kids around me, so I continued cycling. At least 10 of the kids decided to run along side me as I continued up the mountain. At first it was fun to have the company, but the road was so steep I could barely ride it and I just wanted them to go back so that I could slip into the trees and find a campsite.

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Another night in the jungle

I continued along the dirt road for another day. It was a stunning cycle. Once the early morning ‘commute’ of villagers heading to their land had died down I largely had the road to myself.

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Monster tree

Huge chunks of the mountainsides had been deforested. The results were quite startling – I’ve never seen anything like it. All night I’d been complaining about the critters inviting themselves into my (still broken) tent, but now I felt awful for the zillion animals whose habitat had been wiped out. I too was another of the creatures looking to the jungle for a place to sleep every night.

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A deforested section of the mountain
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The contrast between lush jungle and destroyed mountains

The burnt sections were silent, but when I re-entered a section of nature the jungle soundtrack would erupt around me. Huge vines hung over the road and exotic birdsong filtered through the canopy.

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These are the kind of roads I love! Maybe these trees will be burnt next…
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Kids on their way home from school

After three days I eventually hit tarmac again. It had been a dusty affair and as ever the dirt road days were worth it just for that glorious feeling of hitting smooth asphalt again.

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Action shot!
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Tarzan cycling

I found another gorgeous river side pitch. A nice wide bank to put the tent up on and a deep river to have a proper swim. When I find a spot like that to sleep I remind myself why I wouldn’t want be living any other way. I scrubbed the layer of dirt of my legs, cleaned my bicycle and washed my clothes before cooking dinner. As I ate local villagers walked along the hill across the river back home after a long day in the fields. As darkness fell tiny fireflies began to flicker all around. It’s a good life out here.

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Time for a wash
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‘Clean me’

As I was falling a sleep I heard noises from the river’s direction. I leant out my tent and saw a couple of torches coming from a little downstream. Brilliant – I seem to be on an unfortunate roll of people finding my campsites. Perhaps that’s my fault for not being at all sneaky.

I hid in my tent as the voices came nearer but eventually the beam flicked across in my direction – I’d been spotted. I popped out to find two women making their way upstream, wading through the water with fishing nets nets in hand. The main reason I hadn’t gotten out my tent was because I didn’t want to give them a fright, but people here seem fazed by nothing. I went down to say hello and they just laughed at me and smiled back. They were smoking strong smelling cigars. Lots of the minority ethnic group women smoke around here which is unusual – it’s most often the men at it around the world.

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This is what my legs looked like everyday on the dirt roads. At least I didn’t need sun cream to keep me from burning!
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Melted road

I moved a lot quicker on asphalt but man it was hot! I had to be off at the crack of dawn to avoid the worst of the heat. Even the tarmac was melting under the heavy trucks en route to Thailand.   

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There were lots of anti-drugs signs around. Just down the road from this sign was a shop selling villagers’ crafts from places where locals depended on opium farming to make money.
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Another sign higher up in the mountains. In this greater ‘Golden Triangle’ area around the Burma/Thailand/Laos/China borders local economy was often dependant on poppy farming until the respective governments cracked down on drug trade.

One last camp and I was at the wide Mekong valley. Northern Laos was a really beautiful section of cycling. The country was more ‘rustic’ and poorer than I’d expected but the people were incredibly welcoming. I’ve not been anywhere where I’ve felt so welcomed in a long time. When I sat at the turn off to China I tried to get my head around how two places so close could be so different. I was eating noodle soup at the junction just as I would have been on the other side of the border but the people were a totally different crew. Life was very different on this side.

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Last morning in Laos

I’m glad I went through Vietnam on my way from China to Laos – it was the perfect cultural middle ground. Had I crossed directly into Laos I’d have suffered too great a shock to the system.

Laos had been a blast but I was ready for the luxuries that Thailand had to offer across the river…

 

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